Sears 2012 Christmas Catalog Reproduces The Sexual Economy

Any visit down the aisles of Toys R Us can remind us that toy making is possibly the last outpost of unenlightened gender relations.  One side is all pink, lavender, and turquoise.  It contains dolls, mostly, but also miniature household appliances and the occasional long-haired pony.  On the other side, the colors are primary red, blue, and yellow.  That aisle contains mostly war stuff, with the occasional truck set or fireman’s outfit.

We are all aware of the problem.  Even children know they are being “had” by this sinister silliness, as the viral video of Riley ranting about the “pink stuff” reminded us this time last year.


This toy ad in this year's Canadian version of the Sear Christmas catalogue caught the vigilant eye of a radio producer in Vancouver. How many of us would have just paged right past it?


So, I am not normally inclined to comment on “gender stereotyping” in children’s toys.  I mean, what new is there to say, right?  But when Susanne Hill, a producer at CKNW Radio  in Vancouver, contacted me a couple of days ago, asking me to go on Bill Good’s talk radio show to invite listeners to think out loud about this Sears Christmas catalog entry, I decided to do it.  That’s because there is an interesting enough twist here to help us take a fresh look at something we have learned to stop seeing.

The sexualization of girls in toys like, say, Bratz, and the militarization of boys in toy soldiers and superheroes, speaks to the “raid and rape” species from which humans evolved. But to really grasp how this arrangement has been perpetuated since the chimpanzee stage–and continues to haunt even the most “advanced” civilizations–it is necessary to connect this sex-and-violence mentality to the more mundane issues of keeping a family.  Then, we can look at those toys for the ways they replicate traditional gender roles by teaching our children what men and women are supposed to do in the running of a household.

Females around the world traditionally have been restricted to the “reproductive labor” of birthing children and keeping house–and giving sexual services.  Men, as the ones who leave the house for jobs, have kept the right to earn currency for themselves.  This arrangement results in profound disempowerment of the females.

Let me give an example that may be less charged for Western readers because it seems far away.  In research my group is doing in rural Uganda, we find that the men hold the jobs that pay cash.  They go to the towns frequently in the course of this work.  The women stay home, sometimes cultivating the farm, but mostly tied to the homestead by the burden of too many children (multiple babies literally hanging on them).  These women must beg the men for anything they want or need that cannot be made or grown at home.  They are incredibly isolated, unaware of the world outside their immediate village and even of their own rights in that world.  The men consider their wife’s body their own property.  There is little shame in beating your wife–she doesn’t get to “say no.”  Young girls are traded in marriage as soon as they menstruate, quickly become pregnant, and begin the cycle again.

My mother’s era was not far removed from this arrangement.  The wives of the young doctors who were my father’s colleagues did not earn their own money, but were given “allowances” by their husbands.  Often, these allowances were tied closely to the exact expenses for food and clothing that kept the households going.  The women were utterly dependent on the men.  And they were largely confined to the home because, even if they had cars (which many did not), their cash supply could not support extra gas or even a trip to the movies very often.  In those days, people had much bigger families:  my mother had four children and that was not an unusual number for the time.  Though she had many of the wonder conveniences of the 1950s–refrigerator, washing machine–she was nevertheless as confined to the house by too many children and too little cash as are the women we study in rural Uganda.

I remember the scene in The Ya-Ya Sisterhood where Ashley Judd goes nuts because she doesn’t have the cash for gas as a piercing insight into the gender relations even among the American middle class during my childhood. It made me want to cry for my mother’s suffering, to rage about my memories.  Indeed, as I suggested in Fresh Lipstick, many of the young women of my generation were spurred into the women’s movement by the lives of isolation and powerlessness that we saw our mothers living.  And, of course, Betty Friedan’s ground-breaking 1963 The Feminine Mystique, a book many credit with starting the Second Wave, is about this “problem that has no name.”

Today, in North America, women are more likely to earn their own incomes. There is more sharing of money, housework, and decisions, though these are by no means equal, even now.  So, the ATM toy (why would anybody buy an ATM toy for their child?) is, from a contemporary perspective, gender neutral.  One of the callers on Bill Good’s radio show made this point.  But she left it there as evidence that sex role issues are no longer problematic in toys.

And that clearly is not true.  Now, we could have had a little girl using the ATM machine, no doubt.  But could we have had a little boy doing the vacuuming?  I think it is clear that the answer to that is “no.” It would be, at best, ridiculous to show a little boy “playing” with a vacuum cleaner in this catalogue.  At worst, such an image would be seen as demeaning, perhaps an attempt to make little boys gay.  Absolutely everyone would notice it.  And the more conservative members of our society would go ballistic over it.

That’s because the women in our society today have gained a great deal of freedom when it comes to the production aspects of our economy–that is, employment or entrepreneurship–but they are still stuck with the reproductive work almost exclusively. So, we have all kinds of discussion about how women “can’t have it all” and how governments and companies need to support women more in their “work/life balance.”  And, consistently, conservatives treat the pattern for women to leave the workforce out of exhaustion and frustration as their “choice.”  (Which, of course, gets them off the hook for doing anything about it.)

But can we really say it is a free choice when women step out of the workplace, not out of devotion but out of fear and fatigue?  If we are showing our children even in the toys we buy them that it is not only expected the girls will do the housekeeping, but that it is silly or demeaning for the boys to help, then what kinds of “free choices” can they really make later in life?  The girls grow up to feel guilty every time they stay at work a little late and the boys feel ashamed to admit they know how to diaper a baby.

And then we wonder why there are no women at the top, despite their equal or greater education.  Study after study shows that couples want to have a real choice–not a fake one–in whether they both work while rearing their children.  And both men and women usually choose to have some work outside the home, partly because of the money but equally to get out of the house.  Not to mention to find meaning in some work that matters to them.

We need to be trying to figure out ways to make it happen for them, instead of continuing to insist on a sexual economy that made a previous generation miserable and condemns others all over the world to a life of suffering.

We can start in the toy aisle.

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